SINGLENESS OF PURPOSE

by Fr. Stephen Plumlee

 

We Christians have a remarkable capacity for overlooking and ignoring the fullness of meaning that is in the life which we take upon ourselves when we called ourselves “Christian”. We are fortunate that our Lord Jesus has time and again provided us with reminders of what his calling to us consists in, and we must either be dreadfully obtuse or deliberately reject the message that the gospel brings to us if we miss those reminders.

In the section of St. Matthew’s gospel that we often call “The Sermon on the Mount”, Chapters five, six and seven, we are presented with one of the most forceful statements of what it means to be a follower of Christ. In fact, when we take note that the sayings of Jesus which appear all together in these three chapters of Matthew are scattered in many different sections of the gospels of Mark and Luke, it seems as though Matthew has deliberately brought together a group of Jesus’ teachings that would neatly sum up the sort of attitudes and values he expected from his followers.

If we look, for example, at verses twenty-two through thirty-three of chapter six, we find three sets of sayings, each of which is likely to be quite familiar to us. If, however, we think of them together so as to see how they are related to each other, we can see that there is one theme that runs throughout the three. That theme is the singleness of purpose which each of Christ’s followers must have.

Let’s look at each of the three sets of sayings and see how this theme is progressively brought out in them one by one. The first one is in verses twenty-two and twenty-three, and in it Jesus uses the symbol of the eye and the body to explain a spiritual concept to us. The eye, he says, is like a lamp for our bodies: it lets the light of the outside world come in so that we can see. This is a very primitive understanding of how the eye works in relation to the rest of the body, of course, but it is sufficient as a figure of speech for what Christ is saying. If our eye is not sound, he goes on, it will not be able to let the light of the world into our bodies and minds, and how dark and obscure do things seem to us if we can not see?

When this part of Matthew’s gospel is translated into English, the word that describes the eye is usually translated as “sound” or “healthy”, and that is certainly what Jesus basically meant to say. But the Greek word that is employed here really has a different original meaning. The word is (haplous), and its fundamental definition is “simple” or “single”. In other words, if the eye has any other purpose than the one that has been given to it by God, that is, to be a window for our bodies, then it has allowed its original purpose to become clouded by its attention to other things. The eye has one function only, and if it is distracted by other functions, it cannot do its own work in a healthy and sound fashion.

The second saying of Jesus in this passage is the one in which he admonishes his hearers not to try to serve two masters, for no one ran be completely devoted to more than one at the same time. The two opposed masters that are spoken of here are God and Mammon, who was the ancient Syrian God of riches. In the popular religious writing of Jesus’ time, however, Mammon was a term commonly used to designated possessions of any kind. When we see it in that light, the full extent of what God demands of us becomes shockingly apparent. We cannot, Christ says, give possessions or property a central position in our lives, for if we do, we are sure to neglect the other master whom we say we are serving; that is, God Himself. It means that the “eye” of our sense of discrimination has lost its simplicity of purpose and become clouded, that we no longer see clearly what is the real value in our lives and instead allow ourselves to become distracted from it.

We can not fool ourselves by thinking that Jesus did not mean these words in quite the extreme sense they sound, for they are too clear for us to be able to interpret them any differently. Furthermore, the next saying of Jesus clarifies his preceding statements for us. It is that beautiful passage which speaks of the birds of the air, who neither sow nor reap, and the lilies of the field, who neither toil nor spin.

People have often thought that Jesus is counseling us to be carefree and not give any thought to the future when he reminds us that God our Father feeds the sparrows and makes the wild flowers to be so gloriously colored. “If we only have faith, God will provide all else,” is what so many readers have seen when they read Matthew 6:25-33. But, if we look more closely, we can see that Christ is not actually saying that: he is rather making further comment on the theme of singleness of purpose that we have seen in his two sayings just before this one.

It is anxiety for what we will possess in the future, being encumbered with care for our property and money so that we cannot concentrate on our relationship with God, that Christ is telling us to avoid. Simple care and foresight are not only acceptable, to God : they are among our deepest responsibilities as human beings. To be able to establish goals for ourselves, our families and societies and then to make plans to attain them is one of the things that distinguishes us men from other forms of life.

But what is to no avail is anxiety for all those things, and that is what Christ is speaking of. The point is not that the birds do not sow and reap, for even if they don’t they work harder than any man does to obtain the food that sustains them. The point is, instead, that our lives as men will come to an end just as surely as that of any bird’s, no matter how much planning and foresight we give to it. The wild lilies of the field are given beauty that is beyond anything man can have, but those same flowers after a few short weeks become dead weeds and kindling for fires. In a like fashion, whatever we have, whatever possessions we have been able to accumulate, our lives will wither and die too.

If we understand all these words of our Lord, we are left standing face to face before the truth of what he has said. What we must build our lives around and give all our care and attention to is attaining perfect and complete reunion with God our Father or, as Jesus says it, seeking first the kingdom and righteousness of the Father. If we are to be Christ’s disciples, and that role is all that Christ came to offer us, we must attend exclusively to the service of God. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted from that service by any other concerns, no matter how legitimate and demanding they seem to others — or even to ourselves. Jesus’ last words in this part of the Sermon on the Mount make the priorities quite clear. Everything in this world is a passing, temporary element in our lives except our relationship with God, and, if we become confused about that simple, so terribly simple fact, we lose for ourselves the possibility of being Christ’s disciples. But, if we can keep clear in our minds the principle that our single permanent concern and sole purpose must be nothing else than drawing closer to God and attaining a life of unity and harmony with him, then we can be his followers and our concern for our families and homes and countries can be exercised with a true regard for their place in God’s scheme of life.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
September 1971
pp. 11-12

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